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Father's Alcohol Abuse affects young Children

Increased temper tantrums and depression at 18 months

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Updated November 25, 2003

July, 2001

Many studies have documented negative effects of maternal depression and alcohol abuse on children.  A recent study from the University at Buffalo is one of the first to document that a father's alcohol problem also has a detrimental effect on children.  Scientists at the Research Institute on Addictions found that both paternal alcohol abuse and depression are related to several aspects of children's development.  Alcohol-abusing fathers were found to be less-sensitive parents, and some children of such fathers exhibited emotional and behavioral problems.Kenneth Leonard, Ph.D., and Rina Eiden, Ph.D studied the social, emotional and cognitive development of children of alcohol-abusing fathers and fathers in a control group as the children reached 12, 18 and 24 months of age. The children were observed with each parent in a natural play setting at each of these ages.

When the children were 12 months old, the researchers found that fathers who abused alcohol spoke less to their infant, expressed less positive involvement and expressed more negative emotions than did control fathers. Alcohol-abusing fathers also reported more aggravation with their infant than did fathers without alcohol problems. The alcohol-abusing fathers were less sensitive in their parenting and were less guided by (or even aware of) their child's behavior.

The study found that mothers married to alcohol-abusing fathers behaved in similar ways with their babies as mothers married to control fathers. It also found that a mother's own alcohol problems and her level of depression were related to less-sensitive parenting.

By the time that the children of alcohol-abusing fathers were 18 months, they had more symptoms of anxiety and depression than control children. The researchers note that this could also be attributed to the higher level of depression among the alcohol-abusing fathers. Children of alcohol-abusing fathers also had more "externalizing problems" (such as temper tantrums) at this age, but only among families in which depressive symptoms in the mother were absent. When the mothers were depressed, the children had more externalizing problems regardless of the father's drinking status.

"It is important to recognize that not all of the children in alcohol-abusing families were reported to have problems. There was great diversity and some children appeared to be doing fine," according to Dr. Leonard.  "The alcohol-abusing fathers and their wives often report histories of problem behaviors, as well as symptoms of depression. In fact, these depressive symptoms may be largely responsible for most of the behavioral problems observed in the children."

This study has some flaws, but it is a good example of real world research.  The research team plans to follow the same children and their families, studying them again when the children are 3 and 4 years of age and again when they enter kindergarten.  Hopefully we will know more even more about the effects of paternal alcohol abuse as these children grow older.

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